The Venice Biennale

Photo: Peter Wilkins
Photo: Peter Wilkins

It was a bold move but one exploiting the natural connection between Newfoundland and the home of its oft purported discoverer, the Venetian citizen (though born in Gaeta near Napoli) Zuan Cabboto. And there is something sympathetic about the Comune di Venezia and St John’s; the fetid hum of tidal waters, a cuisine with salt fish at its centre, the louche ways of old ports. The brazenness of the proponents has paid off with two successful shows at the Venice Biennale; 2013’s About Turn, new bodies of work by Will Gill and Peter Wilkins, co-curated by Mireille Eagan and Bruce Johnson (both then of The Rooms), and this year’s Under The Surface, featuring the work of Jordan Bennett and Anne Troake, and curated by Chris Clarke, Senior Curator at Lewis Glucksman Gallery, University of Cork, Ireland.

A French artist might put the 2015 Venice Biennale’s theme “All The World’s Futures” as a question, one purred with detachment, posed with a pout, “Tous les Futures du monde?” It would be voiced but also appear as text on a screen. In form, at least, the future doesn’t look so different than video art of the 1990s.

The answer to that existential question about the world’s fate could be “crowds and catastrophe capitalism.” The cost of neoliberal economics, the growing chasm between the .01% and the rest preoccupies this, Venice’s 56th Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte. The many parts of Africa are justifiably aggrieved, making art from spent shell casings and rags. Greece is pissed-off and bleak. There are protests by the Gulf Labor Artists Collective over conditions at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi construction site. One piece involves the reading aloud of the entirety of Das Kapital for Pete’s sake.

Coming from Canada, where decades of cuts have culled their ranks, it’s hard to fathom that there can still be so many artists, critics, and culturecrats in the world. On preview week, May 4-8, they packed into the Giardini, the dedicated park in Castello, the eastern most of Venice’s six sestieri (neighbourhoods), by the thousands, stopping occasionally for a revitalizing prosecco, scurrying between the various national pavilions like ants raiding a picnic.

They come to a critical consensus about work featured in the Giardini, or the big curated show at the nearby Arsenale, so quickly that one wonders if those writing about it arrive with their conclusions in their carry-on.

Critics are grousing that this socio-economic fixation is lending the event a grim, study hall tone but there is enough political and economic naivety and downright foolishness to leaven the proceedings. Besides, some of the most vulgar yachts to sail the seven seas are tied up mere paces from the entrance gates and many of the pieces on display rely on costly elements of scale (the massive mirror in J David’s Apotheois at the Czech and Slovak pavilion, the giant gas mask by Irina Nakhova at the Russian) for effect. Despite complaints there are no revolutionary stirrings troubling the waters of the lagoon.

The Arsenale is just that; a commodious, nearly continuous network of warehouses used from 1104 until 1797 as stores and armories by the Venetian Republic’s then mighty navy. The exhibitions run, even brain-bleed, together at the Arsenale. Here the art is put in custodial as well as curatorial context. The volume of one piece’s audio (there are many noisy pieces) can muddle another’s. It’s an even more overwhelming experience than that of moving from building to building in the Giardini, a Stendhal syndrome-inducing onslaught of art.

Beyond these two main venues there are “collateral” events all over Venice. Newfoundland and Labrador’s exhibition is almost dead centre of the city, at the Galleria Ca’ Rezzonico, right on the Grand Canal and so in one of the more enviable locations.

The national pavilions in the Giardini are handsomely resourced, big budgets showing in plentiful staff, well-kept gallery space, and fat glossy catalogues. Equally lavish spending could be seen at most of the collateral events. Not so the Newfoundland and Labrador show which is as much expedition as exhibition. Without money for a lead team Troake, Bennett, Wilkins, Clarke, and Amy Malbeuf (Bennett’s partner and artistic collaborator) had to race to prepare the gallery space and install the show themselves immediately upon arrival. Just days before opening both featured artists and curator were painting walls and sewing and hanging curtains, wiring projection and audio systems. They were mopping the floors. On the last three nights leading up to the opening, work continued until four in the morning. Being selected to represent Newfoundland and Labrador guarantees an otherwise unimaginable level of exposure but without considerable state or corporate support it is anything but glamourous.

But the labours were rewarded. The crush at the opening of Under The Surface seemed of an altogether different nature than that at the Giardini or the Arsenale, with those spilling from the gallery space onto the Calle Traghetto Vecchi, befitting the immediate response to the work, giddy, but also strangely at peace. It was a blissful moment even for a place known as La Serenissima, The Most Serene Republic.

Ice Fishing, Bennett’s installation, included audio and video of the artist ice fishing with his father, striking documentary photographs, and most prominently, an actual ice-fishing shed, a saucy slap at the sort of diorama one might see at a natural history museum, a sly auto-ethnography. Visitors were invited to engage with the piece by sitting, as if fishing through holes in the floor of the gallery, on upturned 10 gallon salt beef buckets. The water below the holes was evoked with video, giving a sense, in the watery Venetian setting, of the gallery being afloat. Troake’s 3D video of human movement amongst the primordial webs of roots in a tree fall, OutSideIn, was as mesmeric as anything on show in Venice this year. Troake had set out to make a dance film; “Carol (Prieur), Bill (Coleman), and I were most interested in attending to minutiae–of human movement and of the place. I set up situations and we just explored with the camera rolling.” The video’s evolution into something more than a record was organic and, to judge from the piece’s success, somehow inevitable. The 40-minute video had accidental echoes of the French installation, Céleste Boursier-Mourgenot’s kinetic, if logy, tree and root ball, with Troake bringing a vitality wanting in the French program. (Uprooted and fallen trees were common themes this year.) The video runs in six chapters, the first five detailed explorations of the human form moving through the uprooted world, the last a lusher painting in pixels, as fluid as wet paint.

In his curatorial statement, Clarke says Under The Surface “captures the centrality of landscape to the province’s culture and its inhabitants.” The gallery setting in Venice, as “Old World” as you want, proved a tremendously effective contrast for this work, messages from the terra incognita to a centre of the civilization, from the wild to the place they tamed the tides. Both Bennett’s and Troake’s pieces seem to have tunnelled their way here to emerge from beneath Venice, Troake from the earth, Bennett from the surf. So much other work on display this year has a feeling of having been delivered by cargo plane. In a year that was so political, the Terra Nova Art Foundation show stood apart for being so primal.

Collateral events, like the Newfoundland and Labrador presence on the Grand Canal are there, unlike the more widely publicized shows in the Giardini and the Arsenale, to be discovered. The situation of the Galleria Ca’ Rezzonico, mere steps from a busy Vaparetto (Venice’s public transit system of boats) stop means Under The Surface will be visited by as many as 30,000 people before it closes, owing to the annual flooding, the Acqua Alta, in early November. The lofty goals of The Terra Nova Art Foundation will have been met and surpassed. There is such tremendous exposure for the Province at the event; more than five million people will see the banner outside the gallery. It seems certain that the Government will find a means to increase support for the effort.

Every Biennale is met with big questions about its relevance. It can’t help but be uneven and of the elites. Sea changes to the forms don’t occur on any clock, certainly not biannually, so there is always some frustration at the sense of having seen things before. An event so large and considered cannot be asked deliver the shock of the new at every turn.

But with the 9th century nihilists of ISIS destroying icons and images in Assyria we can only but herald those who labour to replace them. The persistent will to make art in the face of horror represents the world’s best future, as artists like Anne Troake and Jordon Bennett represent ours.

Edward Riche writes for screen, stage and print. His latest novel, Today I Learned It Was You, will be published by House of Anansi Press in 2016.

Reproduced courtesy The Newfoundland Quarterly, Vol. 108, No. 1, 2015

The Venice Biennale [PDF]